Has he been killed?
Mexico may have notched its biggest victory in its six-year offensive against drug cartels with the presumed killing of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the leader of the ruthless Zetas cartel.
Lazcano, one of the founding members of the cartel responsible for some of the most violent atrocities that have come to define the drug wars, is believed to have been killed Sunday in a small town in northern Mexico, just 130 miles from the Texas border.
There are “strong indications” that Lazcano, alias “El Lazca,” was among two people killed in a confrontation with marines in Progreso, Coahuila, the Mexican navy said in a statement Monday.
But, the navy added, it will need to carry out more forensic tests to make a final determination.
The Zetas — headquartered in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, directly across the border from Laredo, Texas — make up Mexico’s largest drug cartel in terms of territory. The group has operations in 11 Mexican states
Lazcano, who is the subject of a $5 million reward from the U.S. State Department and another $2.3 from Mexican authorities, has been rumored killed or captured several times before.
The cartel is responsible for smuggling tons of cocaine and other drugs annually to the United States, generating many millions of dollars.
Gulf Cartel boss arrested
And the name conjures up some of the most violent images of the drug war: a casino fire that killed 52, the deaths of 72 migrants, tortured bodies hanging from bridges.
According to the navy, marines were dispatched Sunday to Progreso in response to complaints of an armed group in town. The marine vehicles were attacked with grenades thrown from a moving vehicle, and a firefight ensued, the navy said.
Two of the attackers were killed, and one marine was injured, the navy said.
Authorities also recovered two assault rifles, a grenade launcher and 12 grenades, as well as a rocket launcher and two rockets, the navy said.
A local newspaper published a slightly different version of events, before news of Lazcano’s possible death was reported.
The Zocalo newspaper reported “moments of panic and terror” when the shootout broke out next to where families where enjoying a baseball game.
According to the newspaper, the shooting started when marines tried to search a suspicious Ford Ranger pickup and its occupants opened fire.
If Lazcano is dead this time, it will be a blow to the cartel but would not necessarily mean its demise. The Zetas are not centralized, as are some other cartels such as La Familia, analysts say.
Another Zetas leader, Ivan Velazquez Caballero, alias “El Taliban,” was captured last month. Velazquez was said to have led a faction of the Zetas that was at odds with the main cartel, led by Lazcano and Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.
Lazcano, 37, joined the Mexican armed forces in 1991 and was part of its elite airborne special forces group, dedicated to battling drug cartels.
Soon after, Lazcano and several other special forces members were recruited by the Gulf cartel to create its enforcement arm, Los Zetas.
In the ensuing years, the Zetas split into their own major drug trafficking organization, and have since branched out into extortion, kidnapping and human smuggling.
The Zetas are in the midst of a bloody turf war with their former employer, the Gulf cartel, and also with the Sinaloa cartel. The fight for access to lucrative smuggling routes in northern and central Mexico has left thousands of civilians dead.
The violence is particularly acute in three northeastern states that are some of the Zetas’ strongest-held territory: Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.
In May, authorities found 49 decapitated and dismembered bodies along a highway in Nuevo Leon. The orders to commit the grisly crime allegedly came from Lazcano himself, who originally wanted the bodies to be left in a town’s central square.
“100 percent Zeta” was painted in black graffiti on a wall at the entrance of a nearby town, indicating Mexico’s paramilitary-trained cartel had committed another atrocity on a stunningly large scale.
But days after the bodies turned up, new banners turned up hanging in locations throughout the country, purportedly from the Zetas, claiming that the notoriously ruthless cartel had nothing to do with the gruesome crime.
Last year, the bodies of 72 migrants from Central and South America were discovered at a ranch in Tamaulipas state.
The Zetas have been blamed for the mass graves and for the deaths of the migrants.
Mexican officials have said that more than 47,500 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown on cartels in December 2006. Some groups say the number is much higher.